How to Set Boundaries with Family: A Joy-Preserving Guide

Setting boundaries with relatives who are committed to misunderstanding your child’s ADHD is necessary to protect your family — and your joy. Here, find scripts for setting limits, ideas for approaching family get-togethers, and what to do if relatives cross your boundaries.

RODNAE Productions via Pexels
RODNAE Productions via Pexels

At a family Christmas party with all his cousins, Noah*, 11, was working hard to regulate his emotions — a challenge at times due to his attention deficit disorder (ADHD), autism, and anxiety. As the children lined up to receive gifts, Noah’s grandfather sent him to the back of the line, then withheld the gift as punishment for his behavior. “That’s when I decided to talk to my parents about boundaries,” says his mom, Ashley, recounting the many times Noah was treated poorly by his family.

Scenarios like these are all too common among families with children who have ADHD and co-existing conditions. A whopping 89% of Instagram and Facebook users polled by ADDitude said they feel that their relatives misunderstand their children and treat them unfairly.

Family get-togethers quickly combust when relatives don’t understand or aren’t interested in learning about ADHD. Instead of offering compassion and support, they often make hurtful or judgmental remarks. In these cases, setting boundaries – and sticking to them – is necessary to protect your child and yourself.

Setting Boundaries with Family: The Conversation

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Massachusetts, stresses the importance of communicating boundaries in a pre-get-together conversation with key relatives. She even recommends writing an email so that it can be referenced later if needed, and suggests the following format:

  • I want to have a good time. Here’s what would help me from you…
  • Living with ADHD in our family means…
  • Our normal day-to-day will be heightened by the festivities.
  • If you have any concerns, please take me aside and talk to me rather than my child.

[Get This Free Guide: Your Free Holiday Survival Kit]

That last point is important. “We want the friction to stay with the adults, and not move from an adult to a child,” Saline says.

After the Christmas incident between Noah and his grandparents, Ashley laid out the following points in an email and in conversation with her parents:

  • She and her husband will handle discipline.
  • The grandparents’ job is to play with and love Noah.
  • Moving forward, she and her husband will be more cautious about which events they choose to attend.

Boundaries aren’t meant to punish or purposely separate. “I told my parents I’m setting these boundaries because I want them to be close,” Ashley says.

[Read: How to Guard & Protect Your Holiday Spirit]

Setting Boundaries with Family: During Get-Togethers

Focus on What You Can Control

You can’t control other people’s actions, thoughts, or opinions, but you can control your responses and attitude. Picture who you want to be and how you want to feel during family gatherings, suggests Suzanne Allen, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist. “How do you want to feel about your child? How do you want to feel as a parent, regardless of what people are saying or thinking?”

Additionally, make it a point to focus on how much you love your child. Jenny King, an Illinois-based mom who has a son with ADHD, is thankful for her supportive family. “We are happy with who he is, and that sets the tone for everybody else,” King said.

Identify Your Allies

While you can’t control your family members, you can identify those who can support you during the get-together, especially during stressful moments, Allen says. Ideally, have a conversation with those individuals ahead of time.

Don’t be afraid to tell your ally what you might need. For example, Allen says a neutral person can help normalize your child’s behaviors. If your child is loud at the dinner table and adults are getting upset, your ally could say, “It’s so exciting for the kids when we’re all together!” The fact that it is coming from someone other than you will register differently with family members and help defuse tensions, all while giving you time to help your child settle down.

You could also ask your ally to play a game with your child or offer them a hug if they’re struggling to regulate emotions. “Remember that when kids are crying or yelling or dysregulated, it’s a sign that they don’t have the tools or the internal resources they need in the moment, and they may not be able to access language,” Saline says.

Or perhaps you would appreciate your ally occasionally pulling you aside to tell you they notice how well you’re keeping it together.

Think Ahead: Have a Plan and Responses Ready to Go

Have a plan in mind that anticipates your child’s needs. King and her husband know that their son struggles to sit at the table, so they allow him to take movement breaks. “When he’s done, he can ask to leave, clean his plate, and go,” King says. “There’s no pressure around having to be a certain way.”

Pre-planned responses can help you remain calm when you’re parenting with an audience and feeling pressure. “Maybe it’s a funny statement where you laugh it off,” Allen says. “Or maybe it’s something directed at your child like, ‘Let’s you and I hop up from the table for a minute.’”

Manage Your Expectations

Be realistic. Don’t expect perfection. Your relatives won’t begin flawlessly respecting your boundaries overnight. “Have an expectation that, at some point, things will suck,” Saline says. “You don’t know what that’s going to look like but be prepared for it not to look like a Hollywood movie.”

What to Do When Family Members Cross Your Boundaries

Sometimes, no matter how much effort you put in, family members won’t respect your boundaries. While this is disappointing, keep in mind that you still have options to ensure your child and family are protected.

1. Speak Up

Don’t ignore a relative’s hurtful comments toward your child. “It leaves children really vulnerable if someone says something to them and their parent doesn’t intervene,” Allen says. “You can shift the power imbalance by speaking up.”

A helpful phrase to say to the adult in this moment is: “They’re a great kid; they’re just having a hard time.”

In private, you can explain to your child that the relative was wrong, and that you will be doing something about it. Allen suggests saying something like, “It seems like Uncle Bob was having a hard time, and he said things that are not true and not kind. I disagree with him, and I’m going to be speaking to him about that.”

2. Reconsider Your Attendance

If certain relatives continue to create a negative environment for your family, you may have to rethink how and if you show up.

  • Should you even go to events if problematic family members are invited?
  • Should you stay for a shorter time?
  • Should you visit relatives without your child another time?

3. Don’t Blame Yourself

Lack of cooperation from relatives, despite your best efforts, is an unfair burden to carry. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t going as expected. “Keep in mind that you can’t predict and plan for every scenario,” Allen says.

Ashley is learning this lesson. “You just have to learn from your experiences and continue to set boundaries,” she says. Key to this approach is believing you have the right to do so. “I’m learning to recognize that I’m important enough to have boundaries.”

4. Take Care of Yourself

Whether it’s taking a walk, stepping into the bathroom, texting a friend, or going out to coffee, Saline suggests being prepared with one self-care activity to keep you centered during or after a stressful get-together.

“The pressure to be ‘on’ means you could be in fight, flight, or freeze mode the entire time,” Saline says. “When you’re in that state, you’re so activated that you’re in your raw emotions. So, you want to have one thing that’s going to help you get through.”

*Name changed to protect privacy

Setting Boundaries with Family: Next Steps

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